Last week the US Secretary of State for Defence announced that the US armed forces would allow women to serve in small group combat units, which President Obama and many other commentators have welcomed as a “historic step”. There is no doubt that this is a historic step, but does it move humanity forwards or backwards?
The subsequent discussion in the British media focused on the familiar topics of equal rights across the genders, of which this is just another facet, physical issues and effects of group cohesiveness of women serving alongside men in combat.
A senior journalist dismissed anyone who disagreed with the step as a stegosaurus, but there is more to the discussion than simple gender equality. There is the whole aspect of the development of civilisation.
The facts are these. British women already serve on the front line, many have engaged the enemy with their weapons, some have been wounded and a few have died.
Women live alongside men and share the hardship in Afghanistan. Women have mental endurance and act with comparable courage; some have received medals in recognition of their gallantry in the face of the enemy.
Women deployed in Iraq and Afghanistan have demonstrated that they can hack it with the men.
However, women are hampered by a weaker physique and were identified, in an Army
study in 2002, as being more prone to muscular-skeletal injuries than their male counter parts. This would be exacerbated by service in the infantry where typical fighting loads are in excess of 60 lbs per man; a weight that has remained fairly consistent since the days of Marius’s Mules in the first century BC.
That said, I have no doubt that there would be a cohort of women who would have the physique and durability to serve alongside men in combat units. The question is, should they?
In addressing this, it is important to understand that women serving in the front line would be stepping into very different territory when they take up close combat roles. Currently women, along with 60% of the men, serve in roles that support combat – signallers, artillery, intelligence, engineers and logistics.
Although their primary role may be in front line, they are usually one step removed from the killing; engineers building a bridge will only fight to enable them to complete their task. This is fundamentally different from the combat – infantry and armoured – units whose raison d’être is to seek out the enemy and kill them as efficiently as possible.
This is brutal and dehumanising work, as described by Captain Doug Beattie * “I heard the detonation and sprinted forward following the path of the grenade. Engulfed by dust and smoke I opened fire spraying all round the room…..I could just make out the prone body of a Taliban fighter….I leant forward and thrust my bayonet towards the body as hard as I could…..There was barely any resistance, the sharpened blade sliding deeper, quickly disappearing.” Savage work indeed, but this is the stark reality of infantry work and few who are involved in it are left unaffected.
Since the First World War Britain has done much, in the interests of humanity and efficiency, to reduce the pool of manpower exposed to close combat. We no longer deploy youngsters below the age of 18 on operational tours nor do we deliberately expose older individuals to close combat. It is highly improbable that Boy Cornwell ** and Lieutenant Colonel Douglas-Hamilton *** would get an opportunity to win a Victoria Cross in today’s forces.
This brings me back to women, who have been exempted from close combat by culture and tradition. Is it right to draw them into this trade where the emphasis is on killing, when we have taken such steps to narrow the parameters of service in response to social advances? Is this a step forward for civilisation or is it a retrograde step for society in the name of gender equality?
Many intelligent and ambitious young women will argue hard that in the interests of equality, women should have the right to take their place alongside men if they are able to do so. They will point out that we have already crossed the Rubicon with women fighter pilots and Apache crews but these activities lack the intimacy of close combat and may be easier to rationalise.
The issue may turn out to be a side show with service in combat units a niche calling for women. However, it is an issue that needs more thought than just rolling out the mantra of equality. Women need to consider whether they want to be XX equal or XY light. The debate needs to be about where we move humanity – forwards or backwards.
I will leave you with a litmus test. Consider how you would react when your daughter, sister or niece announces that she wishes to follow a career in a close combat unit. I know what I would say.
* Captain Doug Beattie served with the Royal Irish Regiment and was awarded the Military Cross for gallantry in Afghanistan. He recorded his exploits in his book An Ordinary Soldier.
** Boy Cornwell was a 16 year old sailor who was posthumously awarded the Victoria Cross at the Battle of Jutland in 1916.
*** Lieutenant-Colonel Douglas-Hamilton was posthumously awarded the Victoria Cross for leading his battalion at the Battle of Loos in 1915. He was 52 years old.
I am still struggling with the technology of the site. Comments can be left at the bottom of the page but the Follow button pops up on the About page. I look forward to hearing from you.